Backward Glances: Audience on Parade

Special Features   Backward Glances: Audience on Parade Playbill historian Louis Botto reminds us of the days when theatregoers dressed to the nines.

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Years ago, when people really dressed to see a Broadway show, Playbill ran a fascinating column called "Audience on Parade." It reported what famous women wore to opening nights and included sketches of their gowns.

The 1941 opening of George Abbott's hit musical Best Foot Forward was a prime example. Playbill called the event "as splendid a display as the most hopeful forecasts predicted."

At this opening, actress Merle Oberon wore a black satin gown with a black lace overskirt tied on like an apron in reverse. Mrs. Richard Rodgers wore a distinguished gray satin suit with a curved peplum and a corsage of pink silk roses.

Frequent first-nighter Mrs. Jules Brulatour, wife of the wealthy film mogul, shined in a clinging gown of white lace weighted with sequin encrustations. Over it she wore one of the evening's sensations — an ermine bolero liberally hung with tails. This had a barrel muff to match it. Actress Ilka Chase wore black-bodiced brown taffeta with a tassel-hung skirt, and actress Julie Haydon arrived in a scarlet wool coat with white frills at the neck.

At the opening of the salty play Behind Red Lights in 1937, "Audience on Parade" reported that musical theatre star Norma Terris wore a striking black broadcloth gown cut very low in the bosom. With it she wore black gloves and an enormous jeweled pendant, its chain wound twice around her neck. Leaving the theatre, Miss Terris tied a blue silk scarf over her head like a peasant shawl, tucking the ends under the collar of her square-shouldered skunk cape.

Also noticed: Lockets worn on chains were making a comeback and elaborate court necklaces of paste jewels had become increasingly popular for wear with empire gowns and coiffures.

Fashion was also beautifully displayed onstage that night. Playbill reported that Eileen Wenzel, who played Jean, stunned the audience in a "luxurious beyond description" full-length coat of shell-pink marabou. The actress, in her pink satin gown and powder-puff coat, made one of the prettiest stage pictures seen that season.

At the 1942 opening of Without Love, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Playbill reported that black velvet was in abundance, in dresses, suits, wraps and accessories. There were black velvet handbags, black velvet berets and pillbox hats, and muffs using black velvet for the body and bits of fur for trimming. Velvet collars added a glamorous touch to black wool coats and wraps, some of them in the new men’s overcoat style.

The 1946 opening of Joan of Lorraine starring Ingrid Bergman brought out a star-studded audience in ermine, diamonds, platinum, mink, and white tie and tails. Ginger Rogers wore ermine, Jinx Falkenberg was in white fox, Myrna Loy wore mink, Mrs. Billy Rose wore a full-sleeved mink jacket over brown taffeta, and Paulette Goddard shone in a pale blue dress and small-waisted, three-quarter-length black coat.

And what of male attire at opening nights? "Audience on Parade" reported that the inverness cape for men was making a welcome comeback.